Here are my strong recommendations on three films that illustrate the history of film and music and how technology has affected both art forms. All three films are fascinating and deserve our attention if we care about the popular culture that affects our lives.
The Story of Film: An Odyssey
A new series on the history of film (no yawns, please) just started running on cable channel TCM. It’s based on a 15-part, 900-minute documentary series titled The Story of Film: An Odyssey, created by Mark Cousins, a film critic from Northern Island and author of a 2004 book of the same title. The first chapter ran last Monday night (September 2) on TCM and will continue for the next 14 Mondays, at 9pm CT. TCM creates a whole evening around the theme of that week’s episode, showing some of the films referenced before and after The Story of Film episode. You can see the list of films referenced in each episode here. The image in the film poster above is from the 1902 George Méliès film, A Trip to the Moon. (You may remember Méliès as the owner of the toy shop in the recent film Hugo.)
The first episode covering 1895 to 1918 starts with early moving pictures made by Thomas Edison in New Jersey and the Lumière brothers in Lyon, France. Cousins pays attention to changes in film editing and the evolution of movie theaters from nickelodeons to grand movie palaces of Egyptian, art deco and other exotic decor.
As AO Scott wrote when the series was released last year: “It is global in scope, attentive to the political implications of film, generally director-centric and closely attuned to matters of form. There are interviews with academics and filmmakers, visits to cinematic landmarks and a wealth of wonderful clips.”
Watch the trailer.
Side by Side
Are you a movie junkie like me who loves the technical side as well as the creative? Then you will appreciate the 2012 documentary, Side by Side, which looks at changes in film technology and focuses on the switch from photochemical film to digital projection. That technology revolution is highly controversial in the movie business, although most theaters have switched to digital completely. (The Gene Siskel Film Center still shows both formats and usually indicates format in its listings.)
Side by Side shows the history and workflow of both kinds of filmmaking and illustrates what is gained and lost in both processes. Keanu Reeves is host and interviews directors and cinematographers about how the technology affects their filmmaking.
The film points out that digital production democratizes the filmmaking process because a filmmaker can go out alone with a single piece of equipment. A digital camera does not require the elaborate equipment and crew that celluloid film does. And it makes every film ever made available for instant viewing. That’s how I can watch old foreign and indie films now on DVD or streaming.
But many directors are saddened or angry by the change and insist the color and image richness of celluloid is lost in digital technology.
Sound City: Live sound, slain by technology
The 2013 documentary Sound City tells much the same story about the music business. The 108-minute film, directed by musician Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), tells the story of the legendary Los Angeles recording studio where bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Nirvana, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, John Fogerty, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Fleetwood Mac and Rick Springfield made great music.
Sound City never really joined the digital revolution and continued its tape-based recording in a venue where every room had its own sound quality. But once the digital revolution began, its demise was in sight. Many musicians still prefer the richer sound of tape-based, analog recording. But Sound City and the other great recording studios have disappeared. Grohl bought the original Neve soundboard from Sound City and has it installed in his own Studio 606.
This is a fine documentary, telling the story of a landmark musical institution, its impact on rock and roll, and its demise, slain by technology. Drummer/guitarist Grohl proves himself to be a filmmaker too.
The film will be shown again a few times this week on Palladia or VH1 Classic. And you can buy it from iTunes or on DVD.